On Dec. 5, 1941, Japanese Fleet Loses Chance for Total Victory

U.S. CARRIERS SLIP OUT OF REACH

December 05, 1991|By Doug Struck

Total victory for the Japanese at Pearl Harbor slips away at 8:10 a.m. The aircraft carrier Lexington eases out of Hawaii at that hour, the last of the three aircraft carriers based there to leave port.

For all the carnage and destruction the Japanese would wreak on Pearl Harbor in two more days, it is the aircraft carriers they are after. The attack on Pearl Harbor is not so much an attempt to defeat the United States as to cripple the Americans long enough for Japan to seize and hold the Western Pacific and Indochina.

To ensure that, Japan's officers know that they must destroy the U.S. carriers. Those ships carry a nest of winged attackers that can roam widely and sting often, to the misery of ships or soldiers below.

It is unusual that no carriers are left at Pearl Harbor. In April 1941, four of the seven U.S. carriers were at Hawaii. To protect the merchant ships on the fragile Atlantic supply lanes to Britain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Pearl Harbor's Yorktown carrier, three battleships and 21 other ships to change oceans, reducing the Pacific fleet by one-fourth.

Then the Saratoga went to Puget Sound for repairs. The Enterprise and its escorts of cruisers and destroyers left Nov. 28 to reinforce Wake Island, since Adm. Husband E. Kimmel rightly expected a Japanese attack there. Similarly, the Lexington left with five cruisers to reinforce Midway Island. All those ships will be safe when the first bombs fall at Pearl Harbor.

*

THE JAPANESE soon know this. Takeo Yoshikawa, a 29-year-old diplomatic clerk in the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu, provides the information. To his co-workers, this long-haired young man is the office black sheep; he loafs at work, drinks often and chases women. To the Japanese fleet, he is a top intelligence agent. He takes long, wandering strolls and frequent taxi rides around Oahu to produce a regular report on the ships at Pearl Harbor, mapped out carefully in code on a grid. For months, he has observed the incautious routine of the U.S. fleet: It leaves port on Mondays and returns for the weekend.

On Dec. 5, he accurately reports the departure of the Lexington. The information is quickly relayed to the Japanese task force steaming in the North Pacific toward the Hawaiian Islands. Aboard his flagship, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo is disappointed. LTC But it is too late to stop. And remaining at Pearl are 96 other ships, including eight mighty battleships -- prey enough for the -- bombers on his decks.

At 11:30 a.m., the tankers sailing with Nagumo's force feed fuel to the bigger ships and then veer off to await rendezvous on their return from Pearl Harbor. The crew of the support ships line the decks and salute the task force in ceremonial farewell.

... IN WASHINGTON, Roosevelt hears from the Japanese. He had demanded that they explain their intentions in Indochina. The Japanese reply that the reports of troop buildup are exaggerated and that the movements nonetheless are "precautionary." Roosevelt is not pleased, and the Japanese diplomats, Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu, are said to leave the State Department "unusually glum."

If Japan remains vexing, news from the other side of the globe is better. The besieged Russians have discovered their most powerful ally: winter. A brutal cold settles in on the eastern front, freezing the German advance and gripping the invaders in their lightweight uniforms.

The Soviet defenders, too, have been more formidable than the Germans expected. Their begrudging concession of ground in the Russian motherland inspires German awe: The German soldiers trade stories of teen-age girls fighting at the front, of fanatical, suicide tank attacks.

The Soviets do not fight for patriotism alone. They, too, have heard stories -- horror stories of atrocities by the invaders: of Jews by the tens of thousands stripped and shot at Babi Yar, of prisoners pulled from jail in Minsk to be lined up and executed. And there are other fears. The family of a surrendering Russian soldier is stripped of its ration card by an unforgiving government; a Russian commander promises his men that if they retake a town, "we will give you a medal. If you don't, we'll shoot you."

On Dec. 4 and 5, the Soviets counterattack. To the Russians' surprise, the numbed Germans fall back. Along some battle lines, it becomes a rout -- retreating Germans are raked mercilessly by Russian aircraft.

Most Americans prepare for their weekend satisfied that at least some of the news is good. There are 19 shopping days left before Christmas.

*

IN THE UNDERWATER channels and crevices of the warm Hawaiian waters, 27 Japanese submarines slide into position to await the start of the attack. They form a rough circle about the islands. Some are in the submerged canyons virtually between the islands; some are on guard dozens of miles offshore.

About 3 p.m., the U.S. destroyer Ralph Talbot picks up a sonar contact five miles off Pearl Harbor. There should be no friendly submarine under the water here. The skipper asks for permission to fire depth charges. But the squadron commander refuses. It must be a fish, he says.

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